As I reflect on the highly successful 15th year of the Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology (HESTEC) conference hosted earlier this month by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), I am reminded once again how rewarding it is to witness thousands of young women and men of diverse ethnicities aspire to learn and achieve in STEM fields.

Every year, I am amazed by the powerful impact of the week-long HESTEC conference on students and families in South Texas, as they are welcomed and encouraged to participate in numerous breakout sessions, robotics competitions and other opportunities and activities designed to engage young people in STEM fields.

This 2016 initiative was even more memorable as it is my final HESTEC as your congressman. I am thankful for the many talented participants and sponsors who helped to make this year’s event bigger and better than before, including my dear friend, NBC News anchor José Díaz-Balart, who is based in Miami and served as master of ceremonies. He is the 2014 recipient of the coveted Congressional Hispanic Caucus Medallion of Excellence for Community Service in Higher Education.

I am deeply humbled to have received the first HESTEC CiENCiA Award, and I am grateful to UTRGV students Maria Romero and Bernabe Joshua Saucedo for designing and creating it in honor of my commitment and dedication to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

I was also especially pleased to meet and speak with former students who had participated in HESTEC in previous years, including Joanna Acosta, a graduate of UTRGV who is now teaching in the STEM fields; and Heriberto Reynoso, a graduate of UT Brownsville and now the CEO and founder of a successful robotics company in South Texas.

With these great success stories, it is no surprise that the Obama administration recognized HESTEC as a “Bright Spot in Hispanic Education in 2015.” In fact, we were fortunate to welcome Alejandra Ceja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, to officially present HESTEC with this honor and represent the U.S. Department of Education at HESTEC’s superintendents’ panel.

As our nation strives to broaden the participation of women and under-represented students in the STEM fields, HESTEC meets this goal by receiving the inspiring testimonies of several outstanding Latina role models, including UT System Regent, Sara Martínez Tucker, and Dr. Monica Regalbuto, assistant secretary for environmental management at the U.S. Department of Energy.

On Latina Mothers and Daughters Day, these accomplished women provided invaluable guidance and career advice to a large audience of mothers and daughters. Further, they reminded HESTEC participants that they were determined to pursue a college education and succeed despite discouragement they received from teachers and peers throughout their schooling.

Defying the naysayers, these smart and tenacious women forged ahead to exceed expectations, took full advantage of their educational opportunities and, at the same time, opened doors to other under-represented students. As the proud father of four daughters, their personal stories were music to my ears, as they conveyed empowering messages to young women in the Rio Grande Valley that a college education and STEM careers are quite attainable.

To highlight new and innovative technologies in the STEM fields, HESTEC also featured a young graduate student from Florida who received a standing ovation after explaining how he is using his background in engineering and technology to transform lives. In his presentation, Albert Manero, a 27-year old Ph.D. candidate, captivated the audience’s attention by demonstrating how he and his team of engineers and artists use their creativity and innovation to design affordable prosthetic arms for young children and a customized wheelchair for a paralyzed veteran. These spectacular originations are life-changing for children and people with disabilities.

Above all, this uplifting presentation taught our students that art, creativity and technology can be infused to change and advance our state, our nation and our world. HESTEC has had an enormous impact on students and families in South Texas in this way by motivating and introducing students to STEM early on and strengthening the STEM pipeline in our public schools and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

Our collective work must not stop here. We must lead our great State of Texas and our nation in ensuring that young women and men of diverse backgrounds have access to a high quality and affordable college education, followed by an opportunity to contribute to our nation’s STEM workforce.

I am especially gratified that a delegation from the office of my colleague, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, attended this year’s conference, which was held Oct. 3-8. She and her staff plan to replicate HESTEC and other best practices to encourage all students in Ohio to pursue STEM fields there.

As a co-founder of HESTEC and retiring member of Congress, I encourage our colleges and universities, superintendents, federal and industry partners, civic leaders and our community at large to continue to build on the success of HESTEC.

We must defy the cynics who believe that women and under-represented students from the Rio Grande Valley cannot become tomorrow’s innovators and STEM professionals. I hope that students from our region will continue to lead the way by exceeding expectations and transforming lives in Texas and across our nation.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows Congressman Rubén Hinojosa speaking at HESTEC 2011. The photo was taken by Rio Grande Guardian reporter Steve Taylor.